Word is going around European media that EU leaders are preparing to cut off Greece from Schengen unless it accepts their plan on how to deal with the refugee crisis, and an operation by the European border agency, Frontex, to control its borders.
If a report in the Financial Times is to be believed, several European ministers and senior officials in Brussels are frustrated with Athens’ inability to address “serious deficiencies” in its border control and refusal to accept EU offers of help. At the next EU summit, in mid-December, they plan to present Greece with the option either to accept a new EU border control regime or face restrictions to its citizens’ rights to move freely within the EU.
Let’s have a closer look at what exactly Greece is being blamed for having failed at. According to various German, Hungarian, Slovak, Polish and many other EU government officials, Greece this summer openly denied its responsibility to guard the external borders of Europe. Greece is accused of having failed to register people, to prepare checkpoints for refugees and irregular migrants at so-called hotspots on time, and to relocate as many refugees as it promised to.
But blaming a weak Greek administration is an easy and popular way to deflect blame that may lie much closer to home. The immigration minister in Athens tells a different story: he claims that he has been waiting in vain for the Eurodac machines required for taking fingerprints; only a few of those promised ever made it to Greece. And yet, between 25 October and 25 November, out of 45,000 people who arrived in hotspot areas, 43,500 were fingerprinted – mostly by national police officers working around the clock.
The EU has for months been dragging its feet in providing support for overworked Greek border staff. On 2 October, Frontex requested 775 border guards from EU member states and Schengen-associated countries, in large part to assist Greece and Italy in handling the record numbers of migrants at their borders. Until 20 October EU partners had contributed just 291. By mid-November, 133 had been deployed to Greek islands, and Frontex was still issuing desperate requests to EU countries to chip in more officers to help with screening and registration.
The criticism of Greece’s failure to meet the hotspot deadlines also rings hollow. Surely EU leaders have known for some time how difficult it would be to meet deadlines – as long ago as 25 Oct they pressured the Greek immigration minister to finish establishing the hotspots at the end of November.
Blaming Greece for its ineffectiveness in relocating refugees is also much easier than admitting that the entire relocation system has collapsed before really finding its feet – something the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, implicitly admitted when he estimated that at the current rate the relocation of 160,000 people from Greece and Italy would be completed in around 2101. Greece has so far relocated 30 people to Luxembourg, Italy another 130 to other EU countries. Last week only one single person was relocated from Italy to Sweden. Another 150 in Greece are documented and waiting to go.
Greece may be dragging its feet, but part of the problem is that northern and eastern EU partners have failed to offer places. Politically motivated special requests – for “non-Muslim refugees” or complete sets of families – have further complicated the process.
For many EU officials, Greece crossed a line when it refused to let Frontex take control of its borders to the Balkans last week. In fact, this wasn’t the case: all Greece had done was to challenge the absurd terms dictated by Frontex.
Frontex proposed an operation plan that would reproduce a policy implemented by western Balkan countries to filter arrivals at border checkpoints by nationality – something that is still illegal by European and international standards.
It also assumes that people refused at the border will be transferred to “reception facilities” – without going into detail what this means. Does it mean that the Greek authorities would assist Frontex in filtering nationalities at their northern border and then lock up the tens of thousands who don’t have the right profile?
In Athens, the impression is increasingly that European leaders are just looking for an excuse to turn Greece into a kind of “population filter”, of the kind that is being set up everywhere from the western Balkans to Turkey.
Anyone who understands refugee flows and the Schengen system has to see that cutting Greece loose from the principle of free movement would not directly alleviate the refugee flows moving towards central Europe. Since refugees rarely use airlines or international ferries, the main impact of reinstated passport checks would be to keep out the tourists who are vital to the Greek economy.
Published first at The Guardian / The Comment is Free